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Don’t mess with MOD: How to build a fiercely loyal workforce

Three tough-looking dudes are mugging for the camera just before the lunch rush in the original MOD Pizza store in downtown Seattle. Sam Mendez, general manager of the store, crosses his meaty arms. Tony D’Alioa, known as Tony D and newly promoted to district manager from GM, lifts his chin and pops his tattoos. Kory Harp, training manager for the entire 195-unit-and-growing fast-casual pizza chain, cocks his head and tries to look fierce.

But the truth is the only thing ferocious about all three is their undying love for their employer and their determination to instill that trait in every employee and franchise partner across the chain, now numbering north of 3,000 and nine, respectively. They talk little about tough love and much about building up their people, and they sound like kindly schoolteachers rather than the burly drill sergeants who traditionally rule in the restaurant business.

“Everybody wants to hear you are doing a good job and I’m proud of you,” says Kory Harp softly, in an interview after the photo shoot. “If you treat people like they matter they will do anything.”

All three men are in their 30s now and considered “carriers of the culture” for MOD, as Ally Svenson calls them. She is co-founder of the Seattle-based chain along with her husband, Scott, which had expanded to more than 160 corporate and 34 franchised stores by the end of 2016 in one of the most competitive—many would say over-hyped—categories in restaurants.

he men came to MOD in their 20s, after drug arrests and prison terms left them low on chances, and have now risen to the forefront at MOD and to experiences they could not have imagined.  Harp brought in Mendez and Tony D and many others, who formed a tight-knit team called the MOD Squad, with the kind of employee engagement other companies of all kinds only dream about.

Tony D came to MOD half-a-dozen years ago, on work release from jail and in need of a favor. “At the time people with college degrees were working at McDonald’s,” he said, but he got the nod after his GM spoke with his parole officer. “Five years later I’m still here.” Last January Tony D found himself in front of a classroom of corporate executives from all over the country, taking questions when MOD Pizza was the subject of a Harvard Business Review case study. The high-powered CEOs were intensely interested “in structuring their companies to copy MOD. That was cool to see,” he marveled. “We’re just this little pizza place but we’re doing something special here.”

He says the culture is “top to bottom,” starting with the Svensons, the husband-and-wife founders who are visiting the store on this day in May as they often do. “It holds up strongly because people see it with their own eyes and ears. It’s not a piece of paper on the wall.”